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Fair Courts E-Lert 7/31/20: Pennsylvania Legislature Advances Judicial Gerrymandering Bill

This Fair Court’s E-Lert highlights the Pennsylvania Senate’s decision to advance a judicial gerrymandering bill, the New York State Legislature’s passage of legislation which bans ICE from making courthouse arrests, and more.

Published: July 31, 2020

Pennsylvania Legislature Advances Judicial Gerrymandering Bill

On July 16, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate voted to advance HB 196, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have voters elect the state’s supreme court justices by district rather than statewide. (The bill also covers two lower-level appellate courts.)

Currently, supreme court justices in Pennsylvania are elected statewide to ten-year terms, after which they face retention elections. Under HB 196, sitting justices would be required to run for reelection in one of the seven new judicial districts created by the legislature. The bill does not include any restrictions on the legislature’s ability to draw or redraw these judicial districts, and it also allows the legislature to determine the timing of the state’s transition to district-based elections.

HB 196 passed the Republican-controlled state House earlier this session. It was first introduced by a Republican lawmaker in 2017 after Democrats gained a majority on the state’s supreme court. If approved by the legislature again next session, HB 196 could go before voters for approval as soon as May 2021.  

New York Passes Legislation Banning ICE Courthouse Arrests

Last week, the New York State legislature passed the Protect Our Courts Act prohibiting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from arresting without a judicial warrant anyone going to or from a courthouse. The bill is headed to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his signature.

A group of activists and legal groups, known as the ICE Out of Courts Coalition, has been advocating for an end to ICE’s policy of making courthouse arrests, describing it as a “cruel, dehumanizing practice.” According to a 2020 report from the Immigrant Defense Project, the number of courthouse arrests ICE made in 2019 increased by 1,700% compared to 2016.

Earlier this summer, U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York ruled that ICE must cease courthouse arrests as part of his decision in State of New York et al. v. ICE. In the last year, lawmakers in Washington and California have passed similar laws barring ICE courthouse arrests in their states.

Lawsuit Seeks to Block the Appointment of Incoming Florida Supreme Court Justice

On July 13, Rep. Geraldine Thompson of the Florida House of Representatives filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Ron DeSantis’s appointment of Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Renatha Francis to the state’s supreme court.

The lawsuit, which is filed in the very court to which Francis was appointed, alleges that she is not qualified to sit on the Florida Supreme Court. Per the state’s constitution, supreme court justices are required to be members of the Florida Bar for ten years prior to their appointment, a milestone Francis won’t reach until this September. Thompson also questioned why DeSantis waited over seven months to fill the vacancy when he was required to do so 60 days after the Florida Judicial Nominating Commission sent him their selected applicants on January 23.

In her petition, Rep. Thompson states that she “fully support[s] racial and gender diversity on the Florida Supreme Court” but that the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission “failed to certify a single qualified African-American or Caribbean-American to Governor DeSantis,” even though there were several applicants who met that criteria. Both Thompson and Francis are Black women.

There are currently no women sitting on the Florida Supreme Court after Justice Barbara Lagoa accepted a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in November.

Denver Post Investigation Finds Lack of Diversity Among Colorado Judges, Defenders, and Prosecutors

A new analysis from the Denver Post examining judicial diversity in Colorado shows that the demographic makeup of judges in the state fails to reflect the diversity of the overall population. Even though Latinx people make up about 22 percent of Colorado’s population, only 7.6 percent of the state’s district court judges identify as Latinx. A similar discrepancy holds true for Black judges, who hold 2.5 percent of district court judgeships though they make up a little under 4 percent of the overall population. The Post’s investigation also found that only 2 percent and 5 percent of the state’s district attorneys and public defenders are Latinx and Black, respectively.

Incumbent Governor Jared Polis has made it one of his “primary judicial goals” to increase diversity on the state’s bench, according to a spokesperson, though the majority of his appointments thus far have been white.